Congrats to Mini-Shorts Contest winner, Nick Morris, for his short script, “DO NOT OPEN” It’s a fun little exercise in suspense. Nick wins a First Ten Pages consultation from me. I enjoyed doing this so much, we’re going to do another one next weekend. Stay tuned!
Premise: (from Black List) When futuristic technology renders the Federal Witness Protection Program obsolete, the U.S. Government begins using Time Travel to hide high-profile witnesses in the past. When a security breach occurs, a U.S. Marshal and her witness struggle to find their way back to the Present Day while evading assassins.
About: Writer Mark Townend has been writing and directing shorts for over 15 years. He recently had his biggest break yet, adapting Anthony Bordain’s novel, “Bone In The Throat.” That got him some attention, which allowed this spec to get in front of a lot more eyes, which helped it make the Black List, with 8 votes.
Writer: Mark Townend
Details: 106 pages
An unexpectedly busy weekend has kept me from baring witness to 200 blood-splattering murders.
I’m speaking, of course, about my inability to get over to Arclight and watch me some John Wick 2! I wanted to see dogs being kidnapped, John Wick getting angry, perfectly choreographed kills, and a Keanu Reeves and Lawrence Fishburne reunion dammit!!
Instead I was stuck staring at a computer screen all weekend.
So to say that I’m angry is a goose-down-filled-pillow of an understatement, muchacho. I knew, under such circumstances, that any script I reviewed had little chance with me. So I needed to tilt the odds in the script’s favor.
That meant NO BIOPICS!
It meant NO TRUE STORIES!
You guys know by now that when I want to be entertained, I need a good old fashioned high concept science-fiction script, like the kind they used to send out five times a week in this town!
Why am I using so many exclamation points!
I don’t know!
On to the plot summary!
It’s the year 2033. Manhattan. Katherine Teller is a US Marshall and a member of one of the most cutting edge projects of the time – Operation Bygone.
You see, in the future, it’s impossible to hide. Every step you take, every whisper you make, is recorded somewhere, logged to something, GPS’d to somewhere, and anybody with half-a-brain can download a hack-pack and find you.
This means that protecting criminals waiting to testify against high-profile gangstas is impossible. Well, it was impossible. Operation Bygone allows us to time travel into the past. A U.S. Marshall escorts the testifier into the past somewhere, where they hang out until the trial, then jump back to the present when it’s time.
Nick Prentis is a medium-level white collar criminal. When he’s caught for pulling a Jordan Belforte, the government tells him they don’t want him. They want the guy he reports to, top dog Leon Vasseur.
Nick reluctantly agrees to testify against Vasseur and is sent back to the year 1972 with Katherine. While at first everything seems fine, a mysterious tough guy named Corbin finds out where Nick and Katherine are staying and attacks.
This sends Nick and Katherine on the run, where they realize there must be a mole in the system. They ditch their trackers and enact the contingency protocol, a secondary system that only Katherine knows the location of. If they can get to it, they can get back to the future. If they can’t, they’ll be stuck here. With Corbin. And Corbin doesn’t like company.
One of the reasons they don’t make these movies anymore is because we no longer live in a high-concept driven marketplace. Audiences have moved on to SPECTACLE as the driving force behind their ticket-buying choices.
We can get plenty of high-concept stuff at home. Like the show I’m watching now, Utopia, about an unreleased comic book that has the potential to dismantle society. Very high concept, but devoid of spectacle.
Does this mean that high concept is dead? Of course not. High concept is still better than low or no concept, as it will create curiosity, which in turn gets people to theaters. The difference is that these movies can’t be bad anymore. They have to have the execution that backs up the concept. And most writers either don’t know how to do that, or don’t want to put in the work to do it. They figure, “My concept’s good, so I don’t need to nail the execution.”
In other words, the market doesn’t allow movies like Face/Off to do well anymore.
Anything that isn’t spectacle-driven needs to be really good. Because word-of-mouth is the only thing that’s going to give these movies legs. A perfect example is Hidden Figures. That movie should not have done well by any box office metric standards, and yet it’s made over 100 million dollars.
So where does this leave Contingency Protocol? The script is pretty good. I don’t know if it crosses into “very good” territory though, which is where you need to be to have a successful film in this genre.
My whole question whenever I read a script like this is, “Does it exploit its concept?” Is it building its characters, its scenes, and its plot around the uniqueness of the idea?
For example, you have several chase scenes here through 1972 New York. Okay. But you could have a chase scene through New York in 2033. How are you taking advantage of your concept by writing that scene? It just being a different time period isn’t enough.
In Deja Vu, the highest selling spec script of all time, and a concept that also covers two time periods, they have a car chase where our hero, who’s in the PRESENT but wearing goggles that allow him to see into the PAST, is chasing a car from the past. There’s no car physically in front of him. He can only see it through the glasses. That’s a chase that takes advantage of its concept.
And that’s not to say that every scene needs to do that. But enough scenes need to do it so that it feels like you’re taking advantage of your concept. This is why Back to the Future is the gold standard in time travel high concept. There isn’t an element in the script that DOESN’T take advantage of its concept.
With that said, as Contingency Protocol goes on, we start to see more of a connection between the past and the present THROUGH THE CHARACTERS. There’s this whole plotline where Katherine’s future family is threatened by the fact that her husband’s grandfather is an ignorant cop who’s been assigned to stop them. If she hurts him, she completely alters her future.
There’s also the mystery of, “Who’s the mole?” I wanted to know who was selling these guys down the river. It’s funny how just one intriguing mystery can keep a reader turning the pages.
That kept me engaged enough to want to get to the end. Combined with the old school high concept premise, it placed Contingency in ‘worth the read’ territory. But I think if it’s going to be the kind of movie people recommend to others, it has to go deeper into its world and exploit its concept a lot more.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Could the scenes you’re writing take place in any other movie? If your scene feels too interchangeable, then you’re either not exploiting the uniqueness of your concept or the uniqueness of your characters. The opening of La La Land is a good example. Anybody can write a scene where the main character is stuck in his car, bumper to bumper traffic, going to be late for work or just wants to get home. I’ve seen that scene a million times before. But I haven’t seen all the characters all of a sudden step out of their cars and start singing and dancing. That’s a scene that’s specific to the concept of La La Land.